Russ Schroeder realized this wasn’t your typical spin cycle after the one-minute mark. Slipping off-line and into the don’t-go-there left side of the Petawawa River’s Suicide Rapid, Schroeder hit a retentive pour-over and flipped. The whitewater kayaker’s training on how to escape a hydraulic kicked in—but would it be enough?

“I knew the boat wasn’t going to flush, says Schroeder, “so I pulled my sprayskirt.”

Man whitewater kayaking
What to avoid, and how to escape if you do get caught in a hydraulic. | Feature photo: Courtesy Pyranha

Pinched in a narrow trough, he swam hard across the hole, grabbing for any water moving downriver; curled into a ball to try to reach the downstream current along the river bottom; and kicked off the rock whenever his body came into contact with something solid. After an estimated two minutes—an eternity in the disorienting, hypoxic realm of a powerful recirculation—Schroeder had exhausted every textbook hole-escape technique.

“I finally just went limp,” he remembers, “then I flushed.”

Two techniques to handle hydraulics

1 Deal with it

Swiftwater Rescue professionals like Rescue Canada’s Matt Cuccaro teach two proven self-rescue strategies for hole-escapes: swim for the side or swim for the bottom. Schroeder’s full-body surrender, which he admits was more the result of beginning to lose consciousness than a considered tactic, is a last resort.

“Stay active—it’s all about reaching for that water that’s moving downstream,” says Cuccaro. If you can’t get to a side, swim hard into the current and curl into a ball. With any luck, you’ll be driven deep into the flushing current below the recirculation.

two whitewater kayakers paddle down a river together
Paddling in pairs opens up more rescue options if you end up in a tough spot. | Photo: Pixabay

Paddling in a group increases safety and rescue options. During his swim, Schroeder was unable to grab his sole paddling partner’s throw bag. Tag line and live bait rescues were potential lifesavers not possible with just one rescuer.

2 Avoid it

Thorough scouting is the best way to steer clear of a sticky situation. Be especially wary of frowning holes—those with edges that curve upstream, feeding back into the center—and quiet, or relatively unaerated, hydraulics. The latter recirculate well below the surface so are particularly hazardous for swimmers.

The critical factor is the distance between the pour-over slot and the boil line, which delineates where current begins moving downstream. In general, walk around anything with a boil line over half a boat length.

Cover of the Summer/Fall 2010 issue of Rapid magazineThis article was first published in the Summer/Fall 2010 issue of Rapid Magazine. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.

What to avoid, and how to escape if you do get caught in a hydraulic. | Feature photo: Courtesy Pyranha



  1. Good article and pointers regarding what are dangerous holes and escape strategies from them. A technique that I discovered, and has worked for me if nothing else has worked (paddling, enders, etc.), before coming out of my boat if I pop my sprayskirt and allow the boat to fill with water, sometimes the boat will be pulled down close to the river bottom and catch the downstream flow, flushing me out. Of course my boat is now full of water and I’ve got to somehow paddle it to shore, but I reckon that it’s better to be in my boat than swimming. This technique works better if the boat has bow bags in addition to stern flotation, else my stern will be vertical. If I figure that I’ve no other options than swimming, and if I’ve got the presence of mind to fill my boat with water, it is worth trying. It’s worked for me several times in holes that others have said couldn’t be gotten out of in one’s boat.


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